2019 Rockman Award Winner Interview: Stefanie R. Bluemle

Stefanie R. Bluemle won the 2019 Ilene F. Rockman Award for her article “Post-Facts: Information Literacy and Authority after the 2016 Election,” published in 2018 by portal: Libraries & the Academy. The 2018/2019 Awards Committee conducted an interview with Stefanie after she received her award.Photo of Stefanie Bluemle

What was the source of inspiration for this article?

Like many people, I was stunned, though not entirely surprised, when Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. It seemed to me that an entire worldview had been overturned and replaced by another. I don’t think I had ever thought so clearly about how many of our assumptions about democracy versus the kind of gaslighting authoritarianism that comes so instinctively to Trump have to do with our relationship to information. And it wasn’t just Trump himself, his campaign, or (now) his administration who played a role. As a candidate with a populist message, Trump could not have been clearer that he defined elites by their relationship to information; tapping into citizens’ existing ire against those elites is part of what helped him win.

So of course, the election of President Trump had everything to do with information literacy and my own position as an academic librarian. It dawned on me: librarians find it so important to teach about authority and source evaluation, but what does any of that matter if a lot of people will instinctively dismiss certain sources of information quite simply becausethose sources claim expertise? And what do we really mean, anyway, when we talk about authority? I set out to answer those questions, and work through my own complicated response to our new reality in the process.

Much has been published on the topic of fake news, critical thinking, and the role of library instruction in addressing the two. Your piece extends beyond fake news to consider the concept of post-facts and the role of emotion — that is, beyond objective fact-finding — in decision making. How do you think post-fact thinking will affect college students going forward?

In certain important ways, college students (and all of us, librarians and other academics included) have always been affected by post-facts thinking. Librarians and others interested in epistemology have recognized for a long time that people have a tendency to look for and value information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs.

What’s different now is that we have a presidential administration–and, increasingly, a major political party–that actively embodies and legitimizes the idea that you should prioritize what you feel to be true over evidence and claims to expertise. The Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education talks about intellectual authority as being constructed in community. Thanks to Trumpism, post-facts thinking is an approach to intellectual authority that has been constructed and now legitimized in community.

As academics, we have to recognize that the forms of intellectual authority we tend to recognize are up against post-facts thinking, which has just as much weight and legitimacy nationwide. We don’t know for sure where all of our students are coming from intellectually, and we probably shouldn’t assume we won’t encounter anyone who is fundamentally skeptical about traditional or mainstream forms of intellectual authority.

What is the role of academic institutions, and academic libraries in particular, in the age of post-facts?

It can be easy for academics to behave as though our undergraduate students are here to enter into our world–as though the value of learning about a discipline, entering a scholarly conversation, or revering peer-review will somehow be self-evident to them. I include academic librarians in that observation. It’s tempting to guide students toward being versions of ourselves, whether by teaching them the professional jargon and every nuance of navigating an academic library, or just by assuming they’ll care about the social, political, or other implications of information the same way we do.

But when we stop and think about it, we know that students go to college for any number of reasons. For many of them, academic disciplines and practices are a different planet with little obvious connection to the lives they envision for themselves. Librarians who work with undergraduates are, by and large, very student-centered, a quality that has become even more important post-2016. We need to tease out the elements of our areas of expertise that can make the biggest difference to our students’ lives as they actually are, and we need to communicate with students about whythey’re doing what they’re doing. That’s abstract, and it’s a tough thing to do. I know I fail at least as often as I succeed. It’s a worthwhile goal, though.

Additionally, post-facts politics effectively guarantees that libraries can never again even try to claim a form of neutrality. Some astute librarians have been arguing for a long time that libraries are never neutral. But Trumpism, just by being what it is, defines libraries, and especially academic ones, as political; that’s the world we now live in. So we have to acknowledge that–the inevitability, the inescapability, of standing for things that are political, whether we like it or not–even as we commit to making all of our students feel welcome.

At the end of your article, you allude to ways in which academic instruction librarians might address source evaluation in the post-facts era. Do you have plans to follow up on the conversation you started in the article? What should we expect next from you?

It’s always easier to identify a problem than a solution to that problem. By the time I wrapped up my main argument, I felt it would be a cop-out not to at least try to suggest remedies. That’s not to say that I think we can “solve” post-facts thinking or ever truly know how our students understand intellectual authority, either in college or later in life. But I do think there’s potential for librarians to move the needle, and I’m interested in gathering ideas for making that happen. So, yes, I do plan to follow up, although I’m presently still at the stage of reading and thinking and reading some more. It’s very much a work in progress.

Similarly to the way I began this project by asking myself, “What is authority?” I’ve recently been wondering, “What, exactly, do educators at small colleges like mine mean when they talk about the ‘liberal arts’?” At some point I want to pursue this question as a way of thinking about where and how information literacy fits at a liberal arts college. Is IL ancillary to the liberal arts, or is it central, and what are the implications? I feel like something really important is just beyond my grasp, and I hope to figure out what that is.

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